The Rams travel to New Orleans
For the third time this year to face the Saints in the Superdome, this time for the NFC Championship game and a place in the Superbowl. In week 9 of the regular season, the Rams overcame a 21 point deficit in the first half to tie the game, only to falter in the fourth quarter and lose 45 – 35.
Michael Thomas was a huge part of the Saints offense that day like he has been all season, racking up 211 yards on 12 catches. That 211 yards represented 61% of Drew Brees’ 346 passing yards, and if the Rams hope to come out on top on Sunday they will need to try and keep Thomas in check.
Many blamed Marcus Peters for Thomas’ big day, especially pointing to the killer 72 yard TD that Thomas scored with under 4 minutes to go. But Peters was not in strict man coverage on Thomas for the whole of the game. While it is true that Peters did follow Thomas around the formation on some occasions, something which the Rams have not employed against any other receiver this season, it was not on every play. Peters only followed Thomas and attempted to play press about 75% of the time, on what looked to be man coverage defenses. When the Rams played a zone defense, Peters may have lined up on the same side of the field as Thomas, but not necessarily across from him, and obviously, the responsibility for covering Thomas in those situations would be determined by where Thomas’ route took him.
That’s not to say that Thomas didn’t have success against Peters in man coverage anyway, but a number of Thomas’ big gains came against a zone D with Thomas in the slot, meaning Peters would not have been in coverage on Thomas.
It’s also worth pointing out that on Thomas’ long TD to ultimately win the game for the Saints, there was massive confusion in the Rams secondary. Peters was discussing who to cover with Joyner after Cory Littleton moved out from the middle to cover the running back who had split out wide. The Saints actually had both Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram on the field for this play. Kamara was lined up in the slot and Ingram started in the backfield before moving out wide. The confusion caused by having the two backs on the field ultimately led to both Marqui Christian and Lamarcus Joyner double covering Kamara on his five yards in, while Peters was left alone with no safety help against Thomas. It really would have made sense for Joyner to have dropped back into a deep role to give Peters some cover and leave Christian to take Kamara underneath.
A lot has been said about Aqib Talib being a big difference for the Rams when comparing this game to the last. Talib missed the week 9 clash with an ankle injury that kept him out of a number of games in the middle of the season, and the Rams missed him more in week 9 than any other game. The main reason for this is not just his play at the corner position, but his knowledge of Wade Phillips’ defensive scheme and his ability to communicate and organise in the secondary. However, Talib and Peters don’t move around the formation when both are in the lineup, they stick to their respective sides and take whichever receiver comes their way. The only time this changes is when an offence comes out with two receivers, but then lines them up on one side. The corner on the now empty side will move over to play the receiver lined up in the slot. Ultimately I wouldn’t expect the Rams to change this now, and so Thomas will not be shadowed constantly by Talib, but will be covered by a multitude of players throughout Sunday’s game. The Rams can’t expect to completely shut down a top receiver like Thomas, they have to aim to limit his effectiveness as much as possible.
One other difference between week 9 and now that benefits the Rams is the absence of Saints TE Ben Watson, who is out for the game as he is suffering from appendicitis. Watson was the Saints second best receiver in week 9, catching 3 balls for 62 yards and a TD, with his biggest play being a difficult 32 yard grab on the right sideline. Watson’s replacement, Josh Hill, only managed to convert his four week 9 targets into 2 catches for 10 yards, suggesting an obvious downgrade in receiving ability at the TE spot with Watson being out.
Obviously, Cooper Kupp being absent from this rematch would appear to make it more difficult for Jared Goff. However, Goff has been starting to build a rapport with Kupp’s replacement Josh Reynolds, with Reynolds finishing the regular season with 5 TDs. Kupp did have a big game against the Saints though, snagging 5 catches for 89 yards and a score. But most of those yards came on two big plays that weren’t necessarily things Kupp could do that Reynolds couldn’t. The first was a 26 yard gain that took the Rams deep into Saints territory. This catch was made by Jared Goff throwing the ball before Kupp had cut his deep route outside, with the ball arriving just after Kupp turned to look for the ball. This made the pass indefensible for Saints corner Eli Apple and made it easy for Kupp to reel in.
The other big play was Kupp’s 41 yard TD in the fourth quarter. The play design schemed Kupp wide open, to the point where there was no Saints defender within 20 yards of Kupp at the point of the reception. The Rams number 18 then simply ran down the sideline towards the endzone for an easy score. That’s 67 of Kupp’s 89 yards on two fairly simple plays, so I think his absence being an issue would be greatly exaggerated for a team that has already won seven of nine games without him in the lineup this year.
Of course, the biggest change between week 9 and the NFC Championship game is the Rams run game. Even though Todd Gurley picked up 68 yards on 13 carries in week 9 (good for a 5.2 average), the Rams moved away from the run due to getting behind on the scoreboard. However, the last 3 weeks have seen CJ Anderson come off of his couch to rush for over 100 yards for 3 games in a row, ultimately pairing with Todd Gurley to help the Rams rush for a massive 273 yards in the Divisional win over the Cowboys. With the Saints missing huge, run stuffing DT Sheldon Rankins, who suffered an achilles injury last week, the Rams have got to be looking at the prospect of another big playoff performance from the rush offence.
The Rams will need everything I have mentioned above to fall in their favour if they are to knock off the NFC’s number 1 seed at home, but a Los Angeles victory, and a trip to Atlanta to play in the Superbowl, is certainly possible.